Running Through the Wall
by Megan Piersol, PT, DPT
It’s a beautiful, mild morning. A nice breeze circles through the air brushing across your skin. The pitter patter of your feet and harmonious songs from birds welcoming the morning are the only things serenading your mind. You are in the zone and couldn’t feel any better with your run. The people running beside and by you don’t even come in to play. Then, all of a sudden, you see mile marker 10 and your brain reminds you that you have 3 more miles to go. You wonder how you even just ran 10 miles. That is so far! You aren’t going to make it! You feel your breath getting harder, your legs getting heavy, your heart is racing, a lump in your throat is forming, and you feel that you can’t go any further. You’ve hit the wall!
We have all been there before. If you haven’t, then congratulations and keep up the good mental work. There are many myths involved with running and hitting the wall. The most common theory is that your body runs out of glycogen (main fuel source) and can’t fuel itself anymore. Another theory is that lactic acid builds up too much in the muscles and deems them inoperable to propel you further. Some state that your body loses it’s homeostatic (balance) and has to stop. These thoughts all belong to what is called the Catastrophic Theory. All of these theories have been exclaimed without any supportive evidence behind them. There has never been a runner that has run fully out of fuel. Your body does hold some reserve and will stop you before you run out. The more fit you are, the better your body is at using the fuel sources you have available. We never fully “run” out of glycogen. Further studies have found that your body’s acid level is not correlated with muscle fatigue level. As we run, micro tears occur in the muscle that can alone cause fatigue. It has been found that the body never uses all of its motor units (drivers of muscle contractions) when fatigued. Furthermore, healthy individuals never go past 50% of ATP depletion. ATP is an energy source for muscle activity. Exhaustion can occur at various acid, energy (ATP), glycogen, hydration/dehydration, and heart rate levels, but never to a point where we are not in a homeostasis state.
Our brains are very powerful manipulators. This is a good thing for running and any exhaustive activity. The brain protects us from ever reaching levels that are detrimental to our body’s homeostasis. It helps us avoid the proposed catastrophes listed above. This theory is called the Brain Centered Theory. The body sends feedback to the brain to inform it of how far it is in the desired goal (i.e. the end of the run). The brain determines if you need to stop based on this feedback. It will signal for less motor output commands to your muscles, create discomfort, cause loss of motivation, and any other trick to make you stop your activity. The brain determines an end before you even begin your activity. It uses the determined pace and distance or time desired to travel to calculate how much energy, motor output, etc. is needed to sustain your run. Just like you guess what time you need to leave your house to meet a friend by a certain hour, your brain creates a calculated guess of sustainability before you run. If calculated correctly, you finish that 13 miles race with your desired pace or a new PR. If it miscalculates, it sends out warning signals to slow you down or stop you before reaching the end goal. Thus, your desired pace may not be achieved. The good thing is that as you train and become better with feeling your run and learning your limits, you become better and better at enduring your run.
It is always good to make sure you eat a well-balanced diet to provide your body with needed fuel to power your run. Sometimes you may even need a power boost along the way with an energy source. Most organized runs have a goop or small energy bite to help keep the gas tank above empty during your run. My Dad always taught me to keep my gas tank above ¼ a tank at all times. I apply this same concept with my body’s fuel tank. Yes, you can usually go past empty in a car (and your body) and get a few more miles in, but remember your brain will stop you before that happens. You always are left with reserve just in case that tiger comes out of the woods and you need to start running again. Your brain keeps you prepared. Keeping hydrated is also a good way to prolong your brains allowance for running further. Working on improving your pace and setting realistic pace goals for each run will also help the wall be broken down and not standing in your way. Developing positive mind thoughts during your runs will help you stay motivated and less likely for the brain to put up the wall. There are various techniques and methods runners use to help them succeed and avoid the wall or early fatigue. Things such as making to do lists, counting steps, focusing on your body and what your breath, feet, arms, etc are doing, picking out all the runners with bright orange shoes, and setting short term goals along the way are just some ways we can distract ourselves from the run. Studies on elite runners have found that they focus more on their body and what it is doing during their run versus distracting thoughts. This enables them to drive on. For the more average Joe, external distractors (to do list, looking at scenery, etc) allow them the best running achievements.
The one thing that your brain cannot protect you from is heat exhaustion. There is no mind over matter philosophy on this one. You need to be self-aware of the temperatures you are running in. You can’t effectively lose heat in hotter temperatures or very humid environments. This will eventually cause your muscles to fatigue if the heat produced can’t escape as well. The thought behind this phenomenon is that your nerves can’t signal heat threats quick enough to stop the brain from sending the motor signals that keep your muscles running. By the time your brain is aware of the core body temperature elevation, it can be too late. Heat exhaustion can be a very dangerous situation, so always be aware of the environment you may be running in and make sure you have taken the care to train for building up a tolerance for the environment you may be placed in. Take shorter runs on hotter days and cut yourself some slack if you can’t complete you usual 5-6 or more miles that day. Run inside in a controlled environment if you need to do a long run. Also, make sure you are well hydrated and wearing cool clothing to allow as much heat to escape as possible.
The wall is out there, but with proper training, mental techniques, positive thoughts, realistic goal/pace training and setting, and proper health and fitness levels, you can break through the wall and cross the finish line. The brain does a good job at protecting you; taking the time to listen to the brain is key and takes some time and patience. On those hot sunny days, remember that the brain may not be as adept at sending you proper warning signs. Be safe and smart, and most importantly, have fun with your run. Don’t become a victim to the wall.
Join us for my next running talk, Hitting the Wall, that will be held September 21, 2017. Check out the complete educational running seminar series this fall on our website for the dates, times, and location.
- Fitzgerald, Matt. 2007. Brain Training for runners. Use your brain to get the most out of your body. New American library. New York, NY. Pps 46-79, 154-168.
- Brown, Jeff, M.D. and Liz Neporent. 2015. How to think smarter to run better. The runner’s brain. Rodale inc. New York, NY Pps 41- 50, 131-158.